The United Kingdom is about to take a battering in more ways than one. Pumped-up action hero Gerard Butler as Special Agent Mike Banning is here to save the day though. So all is okay. Maybe.
I strained, using every sinew of might, to pull my way through the quagmire of cinematic bile that is London Has Fallen. Rarely has a film masquerading as entertainment managed to be as stupid and offensive in equal measure. That Gerard Butler shows no signs of embarrassment spewing lines such as “the car is bullet proof, not politician proof” is indicative of an actor who’s good at his profession but here he’s reduced to playing our point of view in a cinematic arcade game. Our response – one made up mainly of bewilderment and a bit of anger – is solely the product of the film’s own ignorance towards its idiotic meandering.
Morgan Freeman gets it. As the “safe” member of America’s administration (while the president endures the villain’s wrath), we’re introduced to him when Butler’s pumped up John McClane asks him about his fishing holiday. “Do you have any idea the joy a man experiences pulling a seven-pound king mackerel out of the waters around the bay”, says Freeman desperately trying not to laugh. Behind the eyes of this brilliant actor you know he’s thinking: “Jeez, this is an easy pay cheque”. But even a man of his skill can’t completely hide the chagrin.
Disappointingly, the Hollywood machine has no problem with films like London Has Fallen. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with making bad, offensive pieces of movie nonsense if they make money. As a sequel to the equally inane but somewhat more agreeable Olympus Has Fallen, director Babak Najafi’s film offers a product of similar carnage with a recognisable and likable star along with a conspicuous title suggesting the stakes have been scaled up. Those ingredients work. The film was a hit at the box office and made a lot of money. Unfortunately, many people paid to be disappointed.
I could tell you the premise but frankly you wouldn’t believe me. So I won’t bother. Ultimately, Butler’s secret service agent ends up on the run in a locked-down London with Aaron Eckhart’s president Asher. Their dangerous playground is overrun by a terrorist organisation that appears to have recruited every gun-wielding madman in London. Someone is pissed off with America’s foreign policy (where have we heard that before) and has targeted England’s capital city as their stage for vengeance. Why have they chosen the United Kingdom you might ask?
Well, that’s because, according to the film, the country’s national and international intelligence agencies are run by easily coerced fools and its security forces are as useless as a dog cage made out of beef jerky. The US president’s visit to London has therefore made him an easy target. Only America can save Great Britain. Scratch that. Only an “American” in the form of Mike Banning, a Special Agent who runs just as fast backwards as he does forwards, can save the nation. The irony of Scot Gerard Butler singing the flag-waving tune will be clear to most. It’s just damning that it’s absent from director Najafi’s list of concerns.
Indeed, many of the film’s problems fall at the feet of the director. London Has Fallen is his first Hollywood outing having done a bit of TV work and a couple of movies in Europe including actioner Easy Money II: Hard to Kill with Robocop reboot actor Joel Kinnaman. Of course, he’s working from a script by a collection of writers who each, presumably, added to the other’s fatuous plotting and characterisation. But Najafi shows no ability to make the best of a bad thing.
Of course, it’s difficult to extricate your characters from the one-dimensional constraints that handcuff them but a film as profoundly nonsensical as this has to find opportunities to go tongue in cheek. Najafi does the opposite. This is exampled most distinctly by a painfully artificial moment between Banning and a dying member of the president’s administrative staff after a helicopter crash. Even when the script gives him a chance to add a lighter tone to proceedings he’s castrated by misplaced humour and wooden delivery. For example, after the president emerges from a hiding place, Banning quips: “I was wondering when you were gonna come out of the closet.” The president retorts: “That’s not funny.” He’s not wrong.
Certainly, our “hero” must face the highest stakes. That London Has Fallen fails to make the most of its protagonists’ peril, which lead to admirably disturbing images – empty city streets, iconic landmarks on fire, a landscape overrun by cold-hearted killers – is testament to its failings. The implausibility of its context is part of the phony foundations we must tolerate; this is underlined by some terribly cheap CGI which adds to the synthetic nature of the film. But most destructive is how far we’re asked to suspend our disbelief, not least, to believe that a terrorist cell could pull off such a colossal coup.
To honestly believe that this is possible – or to allow yourself to accept it as a piece of high concept fiction – is to wilfully embrace the jingoistic sensibilities of this so-called action-adventure. We must therefore accept that the United Kingdom is not only useless without the USA, but laughably inept, foolishly short-sighted and incapable of resolving national security without an American hero not only lending a hand, but leading the offensive single-handed. Yes, there’s an entire twenty minutes devoted to Banning instructing a British SAS task force (generally considered as the most highly trained special forces army corps in the world, a unit historically successful at implementing counter-terrorist operations as well as hostage rescue) that he’s the only one capable of saving the president’s life.
London Has Fallen takes itself too seriously and stumbles because of it. The film wallows in the infallibility of the American “hero” with a self-important pride it never earns. That might be a plus for some, the US box office return proves that. But put away the Star-Spangled Banner for a few seconds and there’s very little to stir the senses beyond an eagerness for the closing credits to arrive sooner rather than later. This is cheap action cinema; a soiled product of Hollywood’s dash for cash.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Babak Najafi
Written by: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Christian Gudegast, Chad St. John
Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell
Top 10 Films reviewed London Has Fallen on DVD courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment which released the film on DVD and Blu-ray July 18 2016.